Sichuan is a perfect region of China to try out for home cooking due to the efforts of Fuchsia Dunlop. She is a British cookbook author and chef with cookbooks focused on dishes you can make quickly at home. Her book Every Grain of Rice is an excellent starting point.
You can hear Fuchsia talk about creating her home cooking books on this episode of America’s Test Kitchen. Also, although it’s not actually Sichuan, I’d recommend this article she wrote for the New Yorker: “Garden of Contentment“
A good starting point for her recipes is Beef and Celery – simple, straightforward, and containing the Sichuan peppercorn. It’s found here on the Wednesday Chef.
In some online versions of this recipe, I’ve seen reader complaints about calling for Sichuan peppercorns, which are not in every grocery store. The thing is – you really do need this ingredient. They’re available for a few dollars at Thai Phat in Burlington, and you can easily order them online, one bag will last a while. Not everyone loves this spice, I’ll be honest. Even more confusing is that people taste the spice differently. In just one go around discussing what we tasted with a bite of the beef dish, one person tasted mint, one person tasted “silver”, one person tasted everything that came after as sour, another person tasted cilantro stems, and another “medicinal herbs”. Some people had the lip tingling sensation and others didn’t. What can I say, food is weird sometimes.
This week I made a vegan mapo tofu. My version had the basic components of silken tofu, chili paste, fermented black beans, black beans in chili oil, sichuan peppercorns (of course), ground chiles, and vegetable broth made from roasted onions with a little potato starch in it. Potato starch is used like corn starch to thicken sauces – only so much better; it’s my new favorite ingredient. If I wanted to make authentic Mapo Tofu 1.) it wouldn’t be vegetarian and 2.) I would use this recipe from Serious Eats. Because I made my version by adjusting spices and tasting, and adjusting and tasting again, I’m afraid I can only share the recipe that I didn’t make, not the one that I did.
All of the recipes I made this week required special ingredients. I happily buy up cupboards full of these ingredients and I really do use them (I had en earlier post about this topic here). I realize not everybody shares this willingness to acquire ingredients. Another option is to learn techniques in Chinese cooking – different methods of stir frying, slow cooking, steaming, steeping, etc. There’s a new book out that is all technique focused: Phoenix Claws and Jade Trees by Kian Lam Kho. It’s marketed as “introductory” which is probably true – but as the existence of classes like “Introductory Organic Chemistry” should tell you, introductory and easy are NOT synonymous. This book is for more serious cooks. Or at least people who are really good at following directions.
If there’s one technique to learn that’s very easy, here it is: cooking aromatics in oil at a slow sizzle. Chilis, garlic, and ginger cooked in oil long enough to release their aromas and flavor the oil is a great base for reviving winter vegetables or making a bland chicken breast more interesting when you cook it (that’s how I made the Gong Bao Chicken).
And on a dessert note: the honey nougat with salted peanuts. It’s a homemade version of the Big Hunk bar (available in town at Delish). I use the Liddabit Sweets classic nougat recipe, published online at Serious Eats, and replace the nuts and dried fruit with salted peanuts. I love this candy. You can only make it in giant batches, though, so be sure you have eaters lined up before you attempt it.